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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Tuesday, June 18, 2024

The Daily Cardinal speaks with Ian MacKaye

The Daily Cardinal: Have you ever been to Madison before?

Ian Mackaye: Many times ... 1981 I came there, played at a club called Merlin’s with a band called Bloody Mattresses, I was in Minor Threat at the time ... I know Fugazi played there at least once or twice, I’ve been through there over the years for sure, yeah.

DC: How would you describe your current role in the music industry?

IM: You know honestly, I don’t think that I’m a part of the music industry—so that’s my role. And I think it’s exactly my distaste for the industry that led me to work the way I do. People often ask me about like ‘What’s it like in the industry?’ And I’m like ‘I don’t know, talk to somebody who’s in the industry.’ Because I’m really not, you know, I’m not an industry. For instance, like making these arrangements, like you just called me right? You wrote to me. I don’t have a press agent. I don’t have a manager. I’ve never had a manager. I’ve never had a lawyer. You know, I don’t use contracts. I’m not a part of any kind of consortium ... I’m just involved in making music and making records, documenting music and playing shows, you know, going to concerts. I mean I understand that if you own a record label then on some level, you’re involved with the industry of music. But the music industry is not necessarily the same thing—that’s a slightly different creature. It’s sort of like you might have a pickup softball game or basketball game that you like to play, and you love it, and you feel connected, and it’s a really healthy exercise, and it gets everyone involved, and, you know, it gives you a sense of community, and, you know, it’s a really positive experience. But, you know, people might say “Well, you know shouldn’t that mean you’re a part of the NBA?” And, you know, who cares about the NBA?

DC: How do you feel about the progression of the straightedge movement and how some people use it to assert their superiority?

IM: Well, first-off I don’t have any problem with the term, I coined it. So, the term doesn’t bother me ... I think I’ve been pretty clear for the last 30 years ... literally for the last 30 years, that’s not an exaggeration, I’ve been pretty clear that I’m not interested in the concept of the movement. I was thinking about an individual’s right to choose how he or she wants to live. So I imagine there might well be people who have taken that term ... to describe a sort of a behavior that could allow them then to be judgmental of other people ... There are people who are condescending because they use drugs, and there are people who are condescending because they drink, and there are people who are condescending because they wear pants... people who are condescending will find anything to use for that purpose. Their issue is rarely the content; it’s usually about a toxicity that exists within themselves and of looking for ways to feel like they need to prove or point out their sense of superiority. But it’s not limited to sobriety for God’s sakes ... The people who make it a point to talk about how they live, they’re the ones who may come off as condescending. But there [are] probably an awful lot of people who don’t talk about it, they just happen to live that way ... To assume that everybody who happens to identify as or with straightedge has somehow announced it is ridiculous.

DC: Did you ever think, when you first started playing music that you would end up where you are now?

IM: You see what I’m saying—what does all this future planning have to do with anything? You never know, I always feel like—that doesn’t mean people should not, you know, worry about—spend all their money all the time, not think about the future. What I’m saying is if you focus on taking care of the day, the future—you’ll get there. That means you’ll be around for tomorrow. The future’s coming. So when you asked me, did you expect it, no, I had no idea, and I still don’t have any idea. I just didn’t do the work. And I never thought, “Great, now we’re this big, and we’re going to get bigger.” I don’t think about it like that. What I think about is, you’re termed as being in a band that’s growing, like all I think about is this: if 50 people want to see us, we don’t want to be in a room that fits 500. Then, at some point if 500 people want to see us I don’t want to be in a room that holds 5000, and if 5000 people want to see us I don’t want to play a room that holds 500. It doesn’t make any difference to me whether it’s 50 or 500 or 5000, really. I don’t feel like it’s more validated. What I think is, it should make sense. That’s all. So, if, probably it’s something to me, that sort of philosophy that probably has some way restricted possible growth cause I’m always thinking in terms of take it slow, make sure you’re doing the right thing. There’s no question in my mind, having now played music for over 32 years, that that went along with longevity.

A: Going off that, could you divulge us in some moments where things did make sense did make sense to you?

IM: Could I divulge when things made sense?

A: When—you were just talking about how you sort of do things in the present, you don’t really think about the future, like—have you had any moments where you were just like, this is it, I’m doing the right thing.

IM: Oh, yeah, when I’m playing music in a room of people and they’re in, like, singing—that’s it. That’s it, that’s what I’m trying to do. That moment. I just want to have those moments that are transformative, that you’re like, “Wow!” Where you can, like, get lost in the moment. That’s it, that’s the point. And—and the same with a conversation. Do you know when you’re with someone you love or a friend and you just get lost together? And that’s all. That’s all I ever strive for. With everything. I don’t want to think about the fact that I’m going to a show or playing a concert, people are—you know, I don’t want to have to think about it, I’d rather just do it. And those are the moments I always aspire towards.

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C: Leading from that, do you feel like you’re having, to use your idea of today versus tomorrow, where we’re at today, do you feel like you’re really still having those moments consistently? Do you still feel like you’re still really engaged in what you do?

IM: Yeah, of course, but one aspect of doing anything for a long time is that the legacy becomes, you know, larger and larger. So there’s a balance issue that I’ve often, everything you’ve—I think about this, and there’s an image I use which is everything I’ve done I throw into a sack on my back, and at some point that sack is huge and it pulls me backwards. And that’s a wrestle. And even that process, that’s part of life, I’m trying to figure it out. You know, just trying to figure out how to be a responsible custodian and take it out—I’m not. I don’t shy away from my past. You won’t hear me say “I won’t talk about this or that.” I stand behind every song I’ve ever written, I’ll discuss anything really. Conversely, I figure, keep trying to make sure I’m workiing in the moment, that I’m not only dealing with the past. But it’s hard, because the past is hard, and the past is big. And I think the truth is that that might be the key to whether I was in bands or not. The process of living for a long time, that you—when you’re a child, with a child’s reality, it’s one dimensional, largely shaped by the fact that it’s all a puzzle. You know, but the longer you live, you see that—it seems to me—I’m 51 now, so, you know, chances are pretty damn good I’m not gonna live another 51 years. And, so, it’s not at all that I’m scared of death, it’s just like—well this is interesting. The road ahead is shorter than the road behind.

So it’s the same with the music, like, when I first started playing music when I was 17, I had no sense of—no music behind me to speak of, so I didn’t have to answer a question about, for instance, a song I wrote 30 years ago, because I hadn’t written a song 30 years before I was 17. So I’m not trying to say anything about your question, just to use it as an example. It’s just really part of the process of being alive. I have to assume. Of course, I’ve only ever been myself, only ever had this particular life, never had to compare it to anyone else’s. I think part of the reason I like doing these talks is precisely because it’s an opportunity to kick these kinds of ideas around. People are curious and I’m happy to talk about it, and, uh, I prefer to do it in those sort of settings because they generally tend to be off the record. I find the record to be often a little stifling. But, yeah, I think these are the kind of things I’ve, over the years, sort of thought about. What I’ve done is always going to be deformed by what I do, so I feel like I’ve got to keep doing. And besides, that’s the point in the first place, to engage in the creative process and to engage in creative response, and to continue to make. And that way, 10 years from now, you know, I won’t only have to talk about—people will say what were you doing 10 years ago, well I was just talking about what I was up to 10 years before that. I would rather say, “I was making something.”

DC: Speaking of that creative drive, I guess, this might have some overlap with the issue of looking towards the future, is there anything in terms of creating or making, that you really want to do right now. I see The Evens for instance, and they seem like a sort of impulsive—not to say impulsive, but rather a direct reaction to the maximalism of Fugazi. You’ve got the Evens, who aren’t super quiet, but they’re quitter, you know? Is there anything, in that sense, you feel like you’re being dragged to right now? Something you feel like you need to do right now.

IM: I’d like to get my head around how to make bread. That’s the kinda thing I’d like to do. And also to stretch on a regular basis. That’s the kinda thing I often think about. That’s part of me—I spend so much time on the telephone and on the computer, answering email, dealing with, you know, running the record label or booking the shows, or, all that work, people, at least in my case, the idea that I, as a musician, am either playing music or playing golf is absurd. You know, I’m at work every day. And every night. Just dealing with the sort of management of it all. Like, dealing with all this stuff, it’s one of the aspects of Do It Yourself, it involves, you know, doing it yourself. And actually, you know, I haven’t played guitar today, or yesterday or the day before, and I would like to be able to play guitar more often, but in some ways, the ability to play concerts and play guitar is only afforded ot me because I spend so much time dealing with this other stuff. One aspect of life that I have kind of pushed aside are things that are more fundamental, like making bread or learning how to build shelves, taking time for stuff like that which I feel would be pretty healthy to engage in. In terms of music, I will say this just to clarify, for [The Evens], a band that’s been together for ten years ,it’s not just an impulse, our approach was not a response to Fugazi, our approach was a response, partially, to the suffocating club system. The way music is presented. We feel that music has been really been pushed into a certain sort of circuit, largely a bar circuit, almost entirely. And those bars, those clubs, the way those things get booked have become really systemized. The agents have hold on these rooms for months in advance. You know, if you don’t have an agent it’s so hard to get a show.

This is a system I despise, that music has been forced into this kind of situation. The very fact that so many clubs are 21+ is a perversity that makes it clear that it’s absolutely wrong. [Evens bandmate] Amy and I are very interested in not engaging in that world, because we feel that music is for everyone and should be everywhere. So, part of the kind of approach is a pragmatic response, we were trying to think “How do we get out of the club system, what is the thing that compels everyone to get into this world?” And the answer, really, is volume. They need sound reinforcement, meaning a PA, and, quite often, they need to be in a room where there’s at least some sort of tacit agreement with the neighbors, that the room is soundproof and that they’ve talked to the neighbors. So we though, well, we could actually take our music into other rooms if we just don’t be as loud. Doesn’t mean less powerful or passionate—I just think it’s less loud. And if we can play our own music, with our own PA and our own lights, we can play anywhere. Like, starting in November, we’ve played in used bookstores, record stores, a yoga studio, a bicycle shop, a thrift shop, you know, we can set up anywhere. And we don’t have to book four or five months out, we don’t need an agent, and we don’t have to worry about the kind of, you know, toxic arrangement that a significant portion of the population has been discriminated against. Did you like music when you were 18? 17? Most kids, it’s like, you know, life! And then the bands come play and you can’t see them and that’s just disgusting! So it wasn’t like this was my response to Fugazi, rather, it was like, this is our response to what we don’t see as being an unhealthy status quo. Music is no fucking joke. It was around before the music industry, before the rock clubs, before everything and we think it should be everywhere.

Ian Mackaye is giving a Q&A session at the Masley Auditorium at 8p.m. on April 30. 

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